The photograph created by underground photographer Hanlan, entitled The Crucifixion of Tolerance, is a stunning piece of work. Depicting the crucifixion of Christ, the figure on the cross is male, naked except for the traditional loincloth. In many ways, this image is just like any other depiction of the crucifixion. Except this is different.
The figure on the cross is adorned with a rainbow crown of thorns, and the inscription above his head, which normally bears the inscription INRI (Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews) in this instance says ‘LGBT’. The Christ in this image has a well-defined male body, which in itself is not unusual. Jesus the carpenter would have known manual work, so is more often than not a figure portrayed with muscular definition. In another context, this figure could be seen as homoerotic; this fit young man stares at you, almost inviting you to respond. In this image, Hanlan’s Jesus is held to the cross with leather straps rather than the traditional nails. The subtext speaks loud and proud – this is a gay Jesus. So what is going on here? Christian art is full of depictions of the crucifixion, but they may have different purposes. Some are simply telling the story. For the pre printed word world, the pictorial representation of the gospel story was of paramount importance. Art became an important medium by which the gospel message was communicated. Church buildings used art to communicate the truths of the story – and the story itself. Pictures of the crucifixion were amongst the most common ranging from the serene Christ – to the brutalized Christ. These images told the story and served to educate the masses who attended the mass.
There is another important Christian tradition in art whereby the image of Christ on the cross is used to do more than just tell the story. It is used to challenge and to campaign. It is used to make people and institutions feel uncomfortable. It is used to proclaim that Christ is part of a particular community or context. Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece for an altarpiece of a monastery that worked as a hospital for victims of the plague includes a powerful image of Christ covered with sores. Here the artist is saying to the community of monks, as well as to the community of sufferers, that Christ is with them in their suffering. As the church began to reflect on how to respond to AIDS, many turned to this picture to explore the possibility that Christ is with those living and dying from AIDS. Some looked at the Grunewald portrayal of Christ and identified the sores as those that are usually linked with syphilis. In the sixteenth century, this would have been a challenging work of art.
For those of us used to seeing images of Christ through Western art eyes, it can sometimes be unsettling to see Christ as portrayed in different cultures. It is worth taking a walk through the Google art gallery of world art, searching for Indian Christ, or Chinese Christ or South American Christ. You will find the image of Christ as portrayed by the people of that particular culture and context. Jesus is not white and British! So what about ‘The Crucifixion of Tolerance’? This is an image that is doing far more than telling the story. This is an image that is out to affirm and to challenge. By identifying Christ with the rainbow crown of thorns and with the LGBT title, this Christ is saying ‘I am with you’ to those who identify in some way as queer. This is of immense importance to a community that has been told for 2000 years by the church that they are not wanted. The image is not saying that Christ is gay – for surely that would be blasphemy! But it is saying that Christ embraces with open arms those from the LGBTIQA+ community. So this is an image that affirms, but is also challenges. As challenging and moving as this image is, in many ways it is the easy picture. Would it not be more powerful to challenge the norms. If this is an image that is to convey inclusion for LGBTQI people – why is it a gay man? He may of course be bisexual – so why not have a number of images. Would it not be possible to have a lesbian Christ or a trans Christ crucified? This is an image that will shock some, and I would hope that it does. The church is culpable for creating a homophobic culture whereby it is seen as permissible to discriminate against LGBTQI people. The church has done this down the centuries claiming that the bible supports this view and that Jesus is on the side of intolerance. Hanlan’s picture challenges the church to realize that the time has come to end intolerance. The title ‘The Crucifixion of Tolerance’ is a call to the church to do just that. I would hope that this image creates a response and is used by people to affirm and to challenge.
Bob Callaghan. Co founder New Roots